Read The Mask of Atreus Online

Authors: A. J. Hartley

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Detective, #Fiction - Mystery, #Thrillers, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Antiquities, #Theft from museums, #Greece, #Museum curators

The Mask of Atreus (13 page)

A. J. Hartley

hoping the number was still current. It was. Her reservation completed, she had made her way out to the shuttle bus and the long, disheartening ride into Athens proper. She got off at Syntagma Square, one of the lushest parts of the city she had yet glimpsed, thanks to the adjoining national gardens and the parliament building, then found her way onto Ermou and headed west. It took her a few moments to pick her way through the side streets, their names lettered in the unfamiliar but ultimately legible Greek script, and to the dim cool recesses of the Achilleus lobby. The girl at the desk was a version of the one on the bus, dark and beautiful, frank and a little bored. Deborah, who always found the effusive helpfulness of the staff in American hotels phony and a little alarming, liked her immediately.

She checked in under her own name. Atlanta, after all, seemed a very long way from this dim Old World building with its marble floors and its lustrous, take-it-or-leave-it desk clerk.

"You have no luggage?" said the girl.

"No," said Deborah, smiling uneasily as if this made her bizarre or suspect.

"OK," said the girl, who didn't care one way or the other.

"Here is your key."

The room turned out to be pleasant enough, private, and possessing the same casual elegance she had seen downstairs. The rickety elevator and overly tight staircase had given her pause, but the hotel excelled in the things that mattered, and that was good enough. The bathroom was, again, all marble--

real marble that sparkled slightly when you turned your head, not the simulated stuff you got in the States--and the drapes were long and heavy. Deborah closed them and lay in the dark on the firm mattress, listening to the heavy drone of the air-conditioning, until she fell asleep.

She dreamed of driving on I-85 through the heart of Atlanta. The road kept narrowing without warning, and great concrete 105

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walls loomed menacingly overhead, but nobody would give her an inch. She was baffled rather than afraid, which is sometimes the way of dreams, until she realized that every other driver was wearing a gold death mask.

When she woke the room was silent and dark enough that for a moment she was quite disoriented. She found her way to the bathroom, but was in it and removing the soap from its blue and white paper wrapper adorned with a stylized Parthenon before she remembered where she was.
Greece.

What had she been thinking? She went back into the bedroom and reached for the phone, but stopped herself.
No. There is no one to call.

She surveyed her meager belongings, showered, peered through the drapes into bright sunlight and the backs of buildings, and went down to the front desk. The dusky beauty with the casual, appraising eyes had been replaced by a man, sixtyish, who regarded her without expression as she asked him if he spoke English.

"Of course," he said, shrugging, and looking slightly put out, as if she had asked him if he could read.

"How can I get to the National Archaeological Museum?"

she asked.

He produced a map from behind the counter, conveniently marked with the hotel.

"You are here," he said. "The museum is here. You could walk, but it's hot. A taxi is better."

There was no intonation to suggest a question, but he waited as if he had asked one. Deborah considered the map, looking for a scale that would indicate how far it was, without success.

"Taxi there, walk back," said the concierge. "It will be cooler."

He picked up the phone and waited. Deborah nodded, and he dialed.

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A. J. Hartley

* * *

In the back of the cab she watched the nondescript concrete of the city and the dense, honking traffic, and wondered vaguely if the police had started looking for her yet. It wouldn't take them long to track her passport and credit cards, but what they would be prepared to do about it, she had no idea. She might be a suspect in Richard's death, but surely not a strong one, not strong enough to start calling Interpol, if that was who they would have to call.

And if the police are really involved at all.
Keene was police. He didn't like her, but he was legit. Cerniga, who had seemed more reasonable, more balanced . . . Who could say what he was? Part of her wanted to call anyway, to let them know that she wasn't running away exactly . . . But that made no sense. Perhaps she could call Calvin Bowers.
And what would be the excuse for that call?
said the wry voice in her head.
You think he'll be missing you? You think
he's pining for that awkward, cerebral, and emotionally dam-
aged woman he bumped into while she was being interro-
gated for a particularly nasty murder . . . ?

Shut up.

Deborah paid the taxi driver and got out into the heat. The museum was set back from the road at the top of a flight of steps. She passed under the colonnaded portico, paid for her ticket, and wandered in, feeling the open simplicity of the place, its white, sparse, echoing rooms, the windows set just below the high, blank ceilings, the clutter of statuary with their tiny identification cards.

It was the antithesis of most American museums, stripped down, making no concessions to entertainment value or highculture polish, and only a few to education. It was, somehow, very Greek: a great, compartmentalized box, where nothing was allowed to distract from exhibits which were displayed with a simplicity that verged on the austere. There was no hand-holding, no cheery colors or eye-catching diagrams. "If you want to know more," it seemed to say "--and you ought 107

T h e M a s k o f A t r e u s

to--buy a book or, better still, go back to school." She liked it, especially the Cycladic collection with its oddly postmodern statuary recalling Moore and Picasso, artists who postdated them by four thousand years. She considered the Mycenaean collection carefully, moving from case to case with a studied slowness that left her alone in the room as the tourists sped past. Nothing that she saw was quite the same as what Richard had concealed behind the bookcase in Atlanta. There were other collections elsewhere, of course, but this was the largest, the most complete, and Deborah was struck again by the idea that if Richard's hoard was composed of mere copies, they had been made by artists improvising on a theme, not quoting extant pieces. In other words, they were either real--which would be staggering--or they were forgeries--which would be devastating. She stood the longest in front of the death masks, the

"Agamemnon" mask (she was pleased to see the museum did not call it by that inaccurate title) in particular. She stared at it, trying to recall the image she had seen on the museum computer, increasingly sure that that also had been no copy. The "Agamemnon" mask was a little larger than life size, gold, a little asymmetrical, though whether that was a design feature or a result of being under tons of earth and stone for three and a half millennia, she couldn't say. It had a slim nose, delicately arched eyebrows, a thin-lipped mouth, a broad mustache, and beard. The ears were party cut away from the hair and beard so that they stuck out like flaps. But it was the eyes that were the most striking. They were almond shaped, and there was no iris or pupil, but they were slit from end to end so that they looked simultaneously open and closed. They gave the slightly uncanny sense that the face was sleeping or was otherwise poised between life and death.

"You have been considering this for some time."

The voice at her elbow was deep and heavily accented. Deborah turned to find a man, late middle-aged, probably Greek, and with serious, bloodhound eyes, watching her with a look of reflective amusement.

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A. J. Hartley

"I'm sorry," said Deborah, looking hurriedly around to see if she was holding up a tour. This man was probably a guide. She had been so engrossed in her--
what? Her research? Her
sightseeing? Her detective work?
--that she had been completely unaware of his presence. He could have been watching her for ages.

"Apologies are unnecessary," said the man, shrugging them off expressively so that his face aged ten years in the process. His black eyes shone like hard candy. "I am accustomed to people studying the mask, but few are so . . .
ex-
haustive,
" he said, selecting the word with care, "in their consideration. You are, perhaps, a student of archaeology?"

Deborah smiled.

"I am a museum curator," she said, "from America."

"Forgive me," he said. "I did not mean to suggest a lack of knowledge. My English is . . ."

He waggled his hand:
shaky, unreliable.

"Not at all," said Deborah, her smile settling in now, becoming genuine. "Insofar as I'm an archaeologist it's only of the Americas. In matters Greek I really am a student."

"Good," he said, nodding. "So you did not come determined to prove our mask here a fake."

"No," she said. "I didn't. Do many people?"

He shrugged his Old World shrug again, aged briefly, and turned his palms up.

"From time to time," he said, and nodded, pleased with the phrase. "Most serious archaeologists do not take them seriously, of course, but there will always be a market for conspiracy, no?"

Deborah nodded, wondering uneasily if she had in fact come to test the mask's authenticity.

He took her silence as an opportunity to offer his hand.

"Dimitri Popadreus," he said.

"Deborah Miller," she said.

It was a reflex action, giving her name, and for a split second she wondered if she should have done so. But the thought--fruitless as it was--was driven away by another. 109

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"Wait," she said, "Popadreus?"

She consulted her guidebook.

"You aren't . . . ?"

"The museum director," he said. "I am, yes."

He bowed fractionally.

"I like to walk among our visitors from time to time," he said, "to see what they give their attention to, which is--

generally--not much, and what bores them, which is--

generally--everything. Tourists are very strange creatures," he said, turning from her and watching the stray clusters of people.

"I am often at a loss to understand what they have come for."

He shrugged again, and she smiled, pleased.

"Your museum displays New World pieces?"

New World,
she thought. Europeans had been colonizing the Americas for five hundred years, and they still called it new. Well, she reflected, glancing around the vast, whitewashed room with its Bronze Age treasures, time passed more slowly here, perhaps. To the museum director she simply said, "Mainly," and made a sort of deprecating gesture that would have been at home in the Greek's own repertoire. Hers was a small museum, she suggested, with no worldclass exhibits.
Except, of course, for the secret Mycenaean hoard up-
stairs . . .

"So is it real?" she said, going for playful.

"Why would it not be?" he said, looking at it closely.

"Stylistically it is different from the others, yes, but that proves nothing. If we had hundreds against which to compare it, that would be something, but we do not. We have six. Variations may be because of the individual maker's tastes or the face of the dead man or . . ."

He gave his patented shrug and blew out a breath of air for emphasis.

"There is no reason to doubt Schliemann's account of where and when he found it," he said. "But to make such a thing in the time he had and given the limited resources he had available? That is far more incredible, no?"

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"I guess so," Deborah agreed. "Have you considered having the mask dated just to close the matter?"

"We have considered it," he said, "but it is not possible. Some methods are not suitable. The examination of--what do you call it: the dust from plants?"

"Pollen."

"Right. Pollen dating. To do such a thing when the piece was first unearthed may have been useful, though polished metal holds little pollen. Now, after a hundred years of handling, any finds would be meaningless."

"C-14?" Deborah prompted.

"Radiocarbon dating requires us to break a piece of the mask off," said the museum director. "That is, of course, unacceptable, particularly since there are no good reasons to expose the piece to such destructive testing, and because gold is not well-suited to such a test. If it was smelted with charcoal, and some of the carbon found its way into the metal, then perhaps . . . But the results are unlikely to be convincing. Why damage the piece if no one will be satisfied with what the tests produce?"

"What about helium dating?" said Deborah.

"We may in the future," he said, nodding gravely, "but we need to be surer of the method's accuracy, and that it would not damage the mask itself."

He gave her a shrewd look.

"For someone not interested in proving the mask a fraud you have many questions."

Deborah smiled.

"Professional curiosity," she said. "One curator to another."

"Good," he said, smiling. "Tell me about your museum."

She did, talking about the great stone tomahawk and the rest of the new Creek Indian exhibit and the touring Celtic pieces that would be coming soon, and he nodded and smiled and managed to look enthusiastic, even impressed. She was, of course, self-deprecating. How could she not be, having this particular conversation in front of this particular collection?

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After a few minutes, driven by a growing embarrassment about her pride in the Druid Hills Museum, an embarrassment his polite encouragement could not dispel, she returned to the subject of the Mycenaean gold.

"But let me ask one more question," she said.

"Please."

"Assuming this mask is genuine, what chance do you think there is that Schliemann unearthed another mask like this, one that has never been shown to the public?"

Afterward, when she had a chance to think about it, she thought his face had been like a large isolated house facing the street, its windows lit from inside, promising lamp and firelight within. Then she asked her question, and the blinds came down. For a moment he just looked at her, or through her.

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